Changing salary structures to promote better teaching has been a hot topic in districts around the country for the last several years. In 2001, a business-backed group in Chicago made it a bigger part of the local discussion.

Chicago United, a business coalition that works on education issues, brought a leading expert and proponent, Allen Odden, to town several times that year and paved the way for a $50,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to Odden’s center at the University of Wisconsin to devise new pay alternatives for Chicago and Illinois.

Last fall, Chicago United brought in William Sanders, the developer of another approach, to speak to reform activists.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) elected a new president, Deborah Lynch, who is willing to talk about revising pay incentives, though in a different way than either Odden or Sanders would.

In the current economic climate, however, all such ideas are on hold. “Our thoughts are to really focus on a meaningful raise for everyone,” says Lynch.

With few exceptions, pay scales nationwide reward teachers for additional years of teaching and for college work beyond a bachelor’s degree. The former are called steps; the latter, lanes. Reform proposals add incentives. Here are the most popular ideas:

Knowledge- and skills-based pay: Teachers get higher pay for specific kinds of academic work or for demonstrating that they possess specific professional skills. Certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is an example of a way to demonstrate knowledge and skills, and some districts pay National Board-certified teachers a premium. Odden’s work tends to focus on knowledge- and skills-based pay.

Value-added assessment: Researcher Sanders has developed a sophisticated computer program to create a picture, based on test scores, of how much an individual teacher contributes to her or his students’ learning each year. This so-called value-added assessment compares students’ scores in any given year with the scores they would be expected to get, based on previous scores. The difference is the “value added” (or subtracted) by the students’ teacher.

Career ladders: In the late 1980s, the Rochester (N.Y.) Teachers Association worked with its school district to create a “Career in Teaching” program, where teachers receive promotions and raises for taking on new responsibilities, such as providing support to below-par teachers. Teachers wishing to advance on the career ladder have their applications vetted by a joint district/union panel.

Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan says he is “extremely interested” in career ladders because they provide two benefits: “upward mobility for teachers that keeps them in the classroom” and support for beginning teachers from veteran teachers.

Career ladders are Lynch’s preferred reform as well, although she says they are not her first priority. “The board has asked us if we’re interested in the concept of career ladders,” she says. “That’s something we’d be willing to talk about, but only in combination with a fair and across-the-board [pay] increase.”

Lynch notes that currently teachers can advance only by leaving the classroom. “If we can address that, then it’s worth a look,” she says.

Lynch has watched the Rochester program and notes approvingly that lead teachers there make the same as principals, but she warns that such initiatives come with big price-tags. “When Rochester implemented this, it came with a significant across-the-board increase for all teachers,” Lynch says.

Devil in details

For each of the last three years, Odden has organized a conference on teacher compensation and seen his audience of primarily district and union officials grow each time. The 2002 conference, held in November, brought a small delegation from Chicago: two staffers from the School Board and two from Leadership for Quality Education, a business-backed school reform group. The same week, CTU staffer Allen Bearden joined this group on a trip to Arizona, which adopted its own new teacher-pay model a few years ago.

One big message they heard is that changing teacher compensation requires changing teacher evaluation as well. For instance, Lynch notes that in Chicago, evaluation “generally amounts to a one-word rating by the principal, given in June.” To determine which teachers should move up to a higher paying rung on a career ladder would require something more thorough, she says.

“This stuff is incredibly complex to do right,” says Xavier Botana, head of the CPS teacher accountability office. Charged with re-examining Chicago’s teacher evaluation system, Botana says that the biggest lesson he learned at the November conference is that great care must be taken in deciding how to change evaluation. “It’s beyond having the union involved,” he says. “It’s being able to develop something that the rank and file of the union is going to be supportive of, not just the people at the table.”

Similarly, Lynch says, “There are very few examples out there to look at because of the investment that needs to be made in getting everything right. One of the key words is trust. These things have to be grounded in a level of trust that too often you don’t have in urban education.”

Even so, she says, teacher evaluation is “probably going to come up” in contract negotiations this year. The current system, with its cursory rating system, doesn’t serve teachers well, she thinks.

Solid models like Rochester’s are scarce. Districts that made presentations at the November conference told stories of slow progress with plenty of roadblocks and reversals.

Cincinnati became known as a trend-setter in fall 2000 when union members gave initial approval to a new evaluation and pay system designed with Odden’s help. By the end of the school year, the union leaders who promoted the new system were voted out of office in favor of candidates who wanted to put on the brakes. Last May, union members voted 1,892 to 73 to scrap the new pay structure, which had been scheduled for implementation in the fall of 2002.

Plans for an “enhanced compensation system” got written into Philadelphia’s teacher contract during 11th-hour contract talks in 2000. But negotiations over the design of a pilot program have dragged on for more than two years. The contract expired Dec. 31, 2002.

Conference organizers highlighted the work of Steamboat Springs, Colo., which they billed as a success story. Administrators and union officials from Steamboat Springs said that they’d worked for 10 years to develop a pilot program, which was due to start this year. But according to the district’s web site, even the pilot is being pushed back, as negotiators work to resolve issues that come up.

“I don’t think that the single salary structure works all that well,” says researcher Dan Goldhaber, one of the conference’s featured speakers. “But I don’t think there are any proven alternatives.”

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